Allen and Albert Hughes, who six years ago made one of the most auspicious feature debuts with “Menace II Society,” make a disappointing documentary debut with “American Pimp,” a soft, uncritical exploration of the morally dubious profession. Ignoring issues of race, misogyny and violence, all pertinent and integral to pimps’ work, the Hugheses seem content to simply record the norms and values of an underworld subculture and its “exotic” lifestyle. Theatrical prospects are at best mediocre for a docu that’s intermittently engaging and even entertaining, but not revelatory enough beyond what’s already known about pimps from other studies. Explosive subject matter, if not treatment, should facilitate festival showings and cable airings.
It’s anyone guess what motivated the gifted Hughes siblings, at this particular juncture of their careers, having made not one but two interesting features (the second was “Dead Presidents”), to undertake the documentary route; in most cases, it’s the other way around. Judging by what’s onscreen, the filmmakers’ main achievement is in securing access to an admittedly unconventional group of black men and in letting them present their views without much editorializing or, more to the point, a discernible point of view that would illuminate their potentially controversial subject.
A dozen pimps, from all over the country, parade onscreen in ostentatious clothes and jewelry and glitzy cars which, not surprisingly, are the major rewards for engaging in this line of work. The Hugheses should get credit for locating colorful personalities and for making them comfortable and loose enough to speak freely (more or less) about various aspects of their daily routines.
Structurally, the film is divided into chapters, such as Origins of the Pimp, Pimp Style, the Turn Out, Pimp-Ho (Whore) Relationships and so on. As expected, the pimps use their own distinctive lingo, and foul words dominate their conversations, the most prevalent of which is “bitch,” which is how they address their prostitutes.
Taking pride in “treating each one of them as a woman,” the pimps stress that “anyone can control their body, but the trick is to control their mind.” Rationalizing their calling (one says, “Before I was a real pimp, I dreamed about being a pimp”), they honor prostitution as the oldest profession and assert that “being a prostitute was not bad until they began to make money.”
Needless to say, money features prominently in the testimonies of both pimps and prostitutes. One pimp estimates a good day’s earnings at $7,000, boasting, “I make more money than the president.”
If it feels like easily earned money, the pimps wish to dispel that impression by depicting the nature of their work: recruiting runaway teenagers off the streets and providing their women physical protection, more than decent income — and even good company. One pimp demonstrates to a prostitute onscreen how to attract customers, where to stand on the street and so on.
Some ideas run through most of the interviews, specifically the distinction between “a real, 100% pimp and a fake one,” and the importance for real pimps to know and understand “the rules and regulations of the game.”
One of the docu’s limitations is the paucity of prostitutes (five to be exact) interviewed, and the even rarer occasions in which a pimp and his woman are seen together. A bright prostitute views her pimp as “an entrepreneur, financial manager and consultant,” though she allows that the one-sided relationship with him is based on “psychological manipulation.”
Docu gets more interesting toward the end, with a segment devoted to Rosebudd, a pimp who “retired” and changed careers — working now in telemarketing.
A contrast between street pimps and a “manager” who runs a “Bunnyranch” in Nevada is illustrated with a tour of the ranch’s facilities, playgrounds and latest sex toys. The ranch’s manager discusses the fear of many prostitutes about getting killed and the advantages of legalizing and licensing prostitution.
Interwoven into the footage are excerpts from classic blaxploitation pictures, such as “The Mack” (1973), suggestive scenes from old Hollywood movies, and a Jerry Springer show in which the participants engage in physical brawls.
What’s missing from the docu, however, is a more detailed and serious discussion of why virtually all pimps are (or seem to be) blacks (which is mentioned in passing) and the prevalence of physical abuse and misogynistic treatment.
As expected, production values, particularly music, are strong, lending the film a smooth, facile look that undermines the tougher issues. Overall, “American Pimp” gives the impression that the Hughes brothers accept pimps as a “given,” almost necessary occupation in a capitalistic, market-oriented society. By avoiding truly challenging questions, they humanize their subjects, presenting them in a gentle, kind manner that’s likely to upset many viewers, particularly women.